Saturday, August 02, 2008

Input-output gap

In July we went to France for sightseeing and a wedding. We had a wonderful week and met many kind and interesting people, but the whole time I was rather humbled by my inability to speak French. I suppose it shouldn't really have been much of a surprise, but I must have lulled myself into a false sense of security.

As a child, I attended a full French immersion school from K-5. From grades six to 11 I continued to study French as a mandatory part of the Ontario curriculum. So though I have a pretty solid base, it's been about 25 years since I studied French.

With the trip coming up, though, I bought a French grammar and spent some time reading and listening to learning materials. I admit to spending very little time with the grammar, but the reading and listening was remarkably easy, so I assumed that speaking wouldn't be such a big deal.

When we got to Paris, my confidence was boosted when I could understand what I needed to in getting through the airport and to our hotel. But then I tried to speak and everything fell apart. The words that were so easy to understand simply wouldn't come when called upon. And in their place a babble of Japanese vocabulary was fighting to be deployed. Half my attention was taken up simply suppressing my third language.

Even then I wasn't always successful. It took me about four days to begin saying pardon instead of gomennasai to strangers in public.

All in all, this has given me new insight into those students who seem perennially tongue tied and yet manage to pass the reading tests. It is amazing how large the input-output gap in one individual can be. I would guess that my comprehension is about a B2 on the CEFRL, where my output must be at A1.

I suppose the other side of this is my surprise at how many of the French spoke English and how well they spoke it. Before the trip, everyone I spoke to mentioned the French distaste for speaking English, but nowhere was it in evidence during out trip. So there's another gap to be aware of: the stereotype-reality gap.


Michael Stout said...

This post reminds me of a similar experience. One time when I was back home in Toronto for a visit I went to dinner with my father and I noticed that the waiter had a Quebecois accent. I foolishly decided to practise a bit of French. I asked him, "Est ce que vous habitez en Quebec desu ka?" Now, lets forget the stupidity of the question and focus on the "desu ka", which as you know is Japanese. Since then I've noticed that Japanese almost always interferes when I attempt to speak French.
I once had a student that was Japanese Brazilian. She spoke Portuguese, Japanese and English. Portuguese was her mother tongue. I told her the story I've just related and asked her if she'd ever experienced anything similar. She said she had. She added that the interference goes away once your proficiency evens out. Makes sense to me, the stronger language dominates.
I've also noticed that my Chinese and Korean students switch to Japanese, not their mother tongue, when they code switch in our English lessons, even if the lesson is one-to-one.
Anyway, thanks for another interesting post.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Most adults seem to keep all their non-native languages in a different filing cabinet (so to speak) in their brain than their native language is in. So when groping for a word in L3, it's L2 that you find it in, not L1. I observe this constantly with government employees who have been cross-trained into multiple languages.